[Humanist] 27.619 the social conditions of our work
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 14 08:16:51 CET 2013
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 619.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2013 18:24:58 +0200
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: the social conditions of our work
At the still ongoing Twelfth Workshop on Treebanks and Linguistic
Theories (TLT12, http://www.bultreebank.org/TLT12/) António Branco
(Lisbon), in "Reliability and Meta-reliability of Language Resources:
Ready to initiate the Integrity Debate", provoked vigorous discussion
that badly needs to spread out into the rest of the academic world. He
raised the question of how the development of language resources could
aspire to first class status as scientific work ("scientific" here meant
in the European sense). But at least for me what jumped out of this
question was great concern for the social conditions of intellectual
work. These, I would argue, lead rather directly to the shocking problems
Branco detailed in his paper: the extent not just of fraud and carelessness
in scientific work ("scientific" now meant in the usual Anglophone sense)
but the failure to be able to verify, i.e. replicate, results across the natural
sciences and medicine.
Branco detailed "worrying signs that, in what concerns mature and well
established scientific fields, scientific activities and results may be
untrustable to an extent larger than the possibly expected and
acceptable. That this issue has recently hit the mass media is but an
indicator of the volume and relevance of these signs, whose assessment
and discussion became unavoidable across all sectors of the
international scientific system."
From the mass media he cited the following:
"Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab", The Economist, 19 October 2013.
Michael Hiltkik, "Science has Lost its Way, at a big Cost to Humanity",
Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2013.
Carl Zimmer, "A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform", The
New York Times, 16 April 2012.
Sharon Begley, "In Cancer Science, Many 'Discoveries' don't Hold up",
Reuters, 28 March 2012.
Gautam Nail, "Scientists' Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results", The
Wall Street Journal, 2 December 2011.
The accepted and much publicized goal of scientific research, we all
know, is to produce results that are totally independent of the
researcher, time and place. Results have to be replicable. Some of the
not-holding-up is indeed due to fraud, some to carelessness, some to hurry.
But there are two issues here that concern those of us not in the
The social issue is the pressure put on academics for publishable
results and how some, or perhaps many, respond. During this same
workshop Fr Roberto Busa's meticulousness was cited as the ideal that it
is. But, I thought, consider the social conditions under which that
great Jesuit scholar worked, and compare those with the conditions which
afflict most of us now. Is this not an issue about which we should
raise our collective voice? Why, I wonder, do we appear to be so helpless
in the face of the corps of managers?
The other issue is raised e.g. by Evelyn Fox Keller in her subtle and
powerful essay, "The Dilemma of Scientific Subjectivity in Postvital
Culture", in The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power,
ed. Peter Galison and David J. Stump (Stanford, 1996). This issue is the
systematic erasure of the human actor in scientific research -- the
creation of the abstract "scientist" in the 2nd half of the 19C "who
could speak for everyman but was no-man, in a double sense: not any
particular man, and also a site for the not-man within each and every
particular observer." Keller cites Brian Rotman's very fine study,
Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, in which he studies "the
progressive loss of the anteriority of things to signs throughout
So, a social problem and a philosophical problem, tightly interconnected.
Like the scholars at this conference we have yet to figure out
how to assess much of what we do. So, perhaps, at least as far as the
philosophical problem is concerned, we have a chance to work out a way
of saying "good" that can stand and be relied on without having to mean
"good for everyman, and therefore no-man". But, then, the social problem
cannot be avoided. The mindless, compelled rush into print, the silly chasing
of public impact exercises, the following of grant money rather than one's
developing interests, the bandwagon jumping etc. etc. harms us all. Do we
lack the courage of our convictions because we've lost the convictions?
Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney
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